• Pocket to Laroussia – Larousse de Poche (Librarie Larousse 1954)
• Translated to Heaven – Les Hommes Volants, Valerie Moolman, trans. Madeleine Astorkia (Time-Life Books 1981)
• The Eyes of the Infinite Mind – Ficciones, Jorge Luis Borges
• Caught by the Furze – Francis Walker’s Aphids, John P. Doncaster (British Museum 1961)
• Commit to Crunch – Maverick Munch: Selecting a Sinisterly Savory Snack to Reinforce Your Rhizomatically Radical Reading, Will Self (TransVisceral Books 2016)
Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR
Here are two good tips for anyone learning a foreign language. First, read comics. Second, get a monolingual dictionary. Both are methods of getting your mother-tongue out of the way. If you read comics, you’ll see words illustrated by actions. If you get a monolingual dictionary, you see words illustrated by words. In both cases, you’ll stay inside the world of the language you’re learning, rather than stepping backwards and forwards across a linguistic frontier.
For example, here are some definitions from this Larousse de Poche, or Pocket Larousse:
albâtre n. m. Marbre transparent et tendre. Fig. Blancheur extrême.
béchamel adj et n. f. Sauce blanche faite avec de la crème.
colibri n. m. Oiseau exotique de très petite taille; oiseau-mouche.
fou ou fol, folle n. et adj. Qui a perdu la raison : Charles VI mourut fou.
foudre n. f. Décharge électrique aérienne, accompagnée de tonnerre et d’éclairs. Fig. Coup soudain, rigoureux, irrésistible. Coup de foudre, événement soudain. Amour subit et violent.
glouton, onne adj. et n. Qui mange avec avidité. N. m. Mammifère carnivore des pays froids.
métallurgie n. f. Art d’extraire, de purifier et de traivailler les métaux.
ramoner v. tr. Nettoyer l’intérieur d’une cheminée.
vinagrier n. m. Qui fait et vend du vinaigre. Burette à vinaigre.
If the definitions work right, you’ll understand without an English word intruding. That’s the ideal when you’re learning another language. C.S. Lewis explained it well in his autobiography Surprised by Joy (1955):
The great gain was that I very soon became able to understand a great deal without (even mentally) translating it; I was beginning to think in Greek. That is the great Rubicon to cross in learning any language. Those in whom the Greek word lives only while they are hunting for it in the lexicon, and who then substitute the English word for it, are not reading the Greek at all; they are only solving a puzzle. The very formula, “Naus means a ship,” is wrong. Naus and ship both mean a thing, they do not mean one another. Behind Naus, as behind navis or naca, we want to have a picture of a dark, slender mass with sail or oars, climbing the ridges, with no officious English word intruding. (ch. ix, “The Great Knock”)
If the English word intrudes, you don’t build up your mental muscles in the second language. Or you see the second language in a distorting mirror, rather than looking at it directly. That’s why comics and monolingual dictionaries are good for muscles and eyes.
Even a small dictionary is good. The French lexicon isn’t very big, so this Larousse de Poche usually helps even with the exotic vocabulary of a novel like À Rebours, let alone a straightforward text like Les Hommes Volants. And dictionaries have a literary appeal of their own. A good definition is like a good stroke in cricket, making minimum effort for maximum effect. This definition flies off the bat and skims away for four:
crâne n. m. Boîte osseuse contenant le cerveau.
And if understanding a language is like using a knife to cut into the world, then a bilingual dictionary is like using two knives at once. They get in each other’s way. It’s bad for the weaker knife: it gets blunt and chipped. Using a monolingual dictionary, by contrast, sharpens and shines the weaker knife. My French has never been very good, but I think it’s improved since I’ve started using this dictionary. The Ramones sang about a “Rocket to Russia”, so you could say that this book is a “Pocket to Laroussia” – the world of French in which that famous publisher has worked for so long.
Posted in Dictionaries, Linguistics, Translations | Tagged C.S. Lewis, comics, definitions, Dictionaries, foreign languages, French, French language, French vocabulary, French words, Larousse de Poche, learning a foreign language, lexicography, Librarie Larousse, linguistics, monolingual dictionaries, semantics, Surprised by Joy | Leave a Comment »
If you want a good reason to learn Spanish, here’s one: you’ll be able to read Borges in the original. Learning won’t be very difficult, but it would be worth it even if it were. Spanish is a clear and elegant language and Borges is a clear and elegant writer. He puts his stories together like mosaics, using words as chips of coloured stone to create the strangest of worlds and situations.
This collection, which combines El Jardín de Senderos que se Bifurcan (1941) (The Garden of Forking Paths) and Artificios (1944) (Artifices), has the very strange world known as “La Biblioteca de Babel” or “The Library of Babel”, an infinite library of hexagonal rooms whose books are a kind of drunkard’s walk through alphabetic possibility:
Uno, que mi padre vio en un hexágono del circuito quince noventa y cuatro, constaba de las letras MCV perversamente repetidas desde el renglón primero hasta el último.
One book, which my father once saw in a hexagon in circuit 15-94,consisted of the letters M C V perversely repeated from the first line to the last.
Borges was fascinated by concepts like randomness and infinity, which is why he drew on mathematics so often in his stories. “The Library of Babel” is an exploration of those ideas, but amid the abstraction and universality of mathematics there are haunting images like this:
Muerto, no faltarán manos piadosas que me tiren por la baranda; mi sepultura será el aire insondable; mi cuerpo se hundirá largamente y se corromperá y disolverá en el viento engenerado por la caída, que es infinita.
When I am dead, compassionate hands will throw me over the railing; my tomb will be the unfathomable air, my body will sink for ages, and will decay and dissolve in the wind engendered by my fall, which shall be infinite.
That’s both horrible and beautiful. The first words of the quote – “Muerto, no faltarán…” – are an example of how Spanish can be more precise than English. A literal translation would be: “Dead, there shall not lack caring hands to cast me over the railing…” But in English the referent of “dead” hangs in the air and doesn’t settle very readily on “me”. In Spanish, muerto is masculine singular and clearly refers to the speaker.
English has to paraphrase, just as it does with the title of Gautier’s «La Morte Amoureuse» (1836). One of the strange titles in the Library of Babel, Trueno peinado, translates well into English: Combed Thunder. Another title doesn’t: Calambre de Yeso, or Plaster Cramp. I think Sandstone Cramp or Onyx Cramp would work better in English: the translation fails by being too faithful.
But Borges survives translation better than most writers, because his prose is precise and his themes are universal. Or perhaps you could say fundamental. He’s playing with words and ideas, exploring the relationship between language and reality, between reality and imagination, between imagination and mathematics. “The Library of Babel” is an excellent example, which is why it’s perhaps his most famous story.
But there’s a melancholy and even a terror in the story too, which come across more clearly when you’re reading more slowly and with closer attention. That’s one reason it’s good to read in other languages: people whose mother tongue isn’t Spanish can find things in Borges that native speakers can’t.
But that applies to every language: in some ways the natives are trapped by their own familiarity and fluency. Borges was aware of questions like that and in “The Library of Babel” he suddenly throws a door open to an infinity of mirrors. If the relation between symbol and sense is arbitrary, then any combination of letters can have any meaning. That’s why the narrator of the story suddenly asks:
Tú, que me lees, ¿estás seguro de entender mi lenguaje?
You who read me — are you certain you understand my language?
In other stories, like “La Muerte y la Brújula”, or “Death and the Compass”, Borges’ games with symbols and coincidence can begin to seem like self-parody. This is the story of a series of murders committed to form the letters of the Tetragrammaton, or great and unspeakable name of God in Hebrew. I think the title in Spanish is better than the story, because brújula has an enticing echo of brujo, “wizard”, or bruja, “witch”. Borges was a profound writer, not a broad one, and he repeated himself, like a garden of forking paths or an echoing labyrinth. But my Spanish isn’t good enough to appreciate him fully or get the most out of his humour.
Whatever language you read him in, you’ll probably agree that he is among the greatest writers of the twentieth century. But one of his biggest services to literature may have been to encourage more people to try G.K. Chesterton, one of his own heroes and inspirations. He would certainly have been pleased to do so, because you don’t get ego with Borges. Instead, you get ideas, some of the strangest and most haunting ever set to cellulose. As I said in one of my own attempts at Borgesian weirdness:
Black Aikkos the God is eternally blind,
But he sees with the eyes of the infinite mind… (“The Dice of Aikkos”)
Homer, at the beginning of European literature, is said to have been blind. Borges certainly was, and if he proves to have been at the end of European literature, he is great enough to bear the comparison.
Posted in Fantasy, Literature, Mathematics, Short Stories, Translations | Tagged "Death and the Compass", "La Biblioteca de Babel", "La Muerte y la Brújula", "The Library of Babel", Artifices, Artificios, Borges, El Jardín de Senderos que se Bifurcan, Ficciones, Fictions, G.K. Chesterton, infinity, Jorge Luis Borges, mathematics, randomness, Spanish, Spanish language, The Garden of Forking Paths | Leave a Comment »
Francis Walker’s Aphids, John P. Doncaster (British Museum 1961)
Is this a candidate for Russell Ash’s and Brian Lake’s classic collectors’ guide Bizarre Books (1985)? Yes, I’d say so. It’s not as outré or eccentric as Who’s Who in Barbed Wire (“Containing ‘Names and addresses of active barbed wire collectors’”) or Walled Up Nuns and Nuns Walled In (“With Twenty Illustrations”), but few books are. I’ve certainly never seen a book about aphidology before.
I didn’t even know the word existed. Do aphids deserve a discipline of their own? I’ll let Thomas Aquinas answer that:
[C]ognitio nostra est adeo debilis quod nullus philosophus potuit unquam perfecte investigare naturam unius muscæ: unde legitur, quod unus philosophus fuit triginta annis in solitudine, ut cognosceret naturam apis. – Expositio in Symbolum Apostolorum (1273).
Our understanding is so weak that no philosopher can understand the nature of a single fly; whence it is read, that one philosopher was thirty years in the wilderness, that he might understand the nature of the bee.
For apis read aphis. The philosophus in this case may have begun his obsession like this:
Francis Walker seems first to have turned his attention to the study of aphids in the autumn of 1846 when he observed them swarming and ovipositing on furze. In the summer and autumn of the following year he made copious and systematic collections of such species as he could find in the neighbourhood of his home in Southgate, at that time a country town a few miles north of London. (“Walker’s Aphid Studies”, pg. 1)
Walker was employed as an entomologist at the British Museum and this book is an attempt to analyse what he collected and named. It’s very detailed and might seem very dry. But there’s a lot of food for the historic imagination in descriptions like this:
Aphis particeps Walker = Myzus persicae (Sulzer)
1848 Zoologist, 6, 2217.
1852 List Homopt. Ins. Brit. Mus., 4, 1011.
Collected with four other species from Cynoglossum officinale near Fleetwood, Lancashire, in October, and described as follows:
‘The wingless viviparous female. The body is pale brown, small, oval, shining, and rather flat; the antennae are pale yellow and longer than the body; the rostrum is pale yellow; its tip and the eyes are black: the tubes are pale yellow and rather more than one-fourth of the length of the body; the legs are pale yellow; the tips of the tarsi are black. (pg. 103)
Cynoglossum officinale is a purple-flowered, sand-growing wildflower whose common name is hound’s-tongue. The officinale of its specific name is a reference to its use in herbal medicine. In Anglo-Saxon times and the Middle Ages, herbalists or magicians would have been picking its leaves; in the nineteenth century, a scientist called Francis Walker was picking aphids off it.
There’s a vignette like that with many of the other descriptions, as Walker simultaneously collects aphids and moments of his own life. I think he must have been an odd and obsessive man, but he had colleagues, even although aphidology can never have been a crowded profession. The description for “Aphis bufo Walker = Iziphya bufo (Walker)” notes that this species was
Found in the beginning of October by the sea-shore near Fleetwood [Lancashire] on Lycopsis arvensis, the small bugloss; also by Mr. Hardy near Newcastle on Carex arenaria, sand reed, and by Mr. Haliday near Belfast. (pg. 37)
Were Walker, Hardy and Haliday rivals as much as colleagues? I like the idea of obsessive aphidologists racing each other to find and record new species. Francis Walker could have been a character in a story by Arthur Conan Doyle or H.G. Wells. Ernest Rutherford is said to have divided science into two branches: physics and stamp-collecting. That’s unfair, but aphidology and other branches of entomology and natural history are like subtler and stranger forms of stamp-collecting.
The similarities were stronger in Victorian times, before biology began to merge with chemistry and mathematics. Indeed, Walker began his collecting well before Darwin published The Origin of Species (1859) and perhaps he didn’t like the new science. The preface to this book notes that “Walker’s name has come to be a by-word among insect taxonomists for his inaccuracy and superficiality”, but praises him for making a “significant and important advance in aphidological knowledge” and says that his “catalogues and lists formed the nucleus [of] the vast collections of today”.
“Today” was 1961, but this is a very neat and well-printed book in a solid green binding. I hope Francis Walker would have been pleased by it and by the thought that he’s inspired someone in the twenty-first century to look at aphids with new interest and wonder.
Posted in Biology, Entomology, Hobbies | Tagged aphid, aphidologists, aphidology, aphids, biology, Bizarre Books, British Museum, Cynoglossum officinale, entomologist, entomology, Ernest Rutherford, Francis Walker, Francis Walker's Aphids, hound's-tongue, insect taxonomy, insects, John P. Doncaster, natural history, physics and stamp-collecting, taxonomy, Thomas Aquinas, Victorian science | Leave a Comment »
What is it with savory snacks and the Counter-Cultural Community? Well, if you don’t know, no-one’s going to tell you. In fact, no-one could tell you. As George Orwell put it in another context:
Consider, for example, such a typical sentence from a Times leading article as Oldthinkers unbellyfeel Ingsoc. The shortest rendering that one could make of this in Oldspeak would be: “Those whose ideas were formed before the Revolution cannot have a full emotional understanding of the principles of English Socialism.” But this is not an adequate translation. To begin with, in order to grasp the full meaning of the Newspeak sentence quoted above, one would have to have a clear idea of what is meant by Ingsoc. And in addition, only a person thoroughly grounded in Ingsoc could appreciate the full force of the word bellyfeel, which implied a blind, enthusiastic acceptance difficult to imagine today; or of the word oldthink, which was inextricably mixed up with the idea of wickedness and decadence. (Nineteen Eighty-Four, Appendix)
As Will Self might have put it: Normthinkers unbellyfeel crispcrunch. But “wickedness and decadence” are (of course) precisely what he wants to promote in this ferally phantasmagoric book. If you think that a glass of wine and some cranked-up Throbbing Gristle or Sunn O))) are a suitable accompaniment to your transgressive textualizing, I’m afraid you’re sadly out of touch. Mavericks munch, matey.
Which means you don’t want music getting in the way of your commitment to crunch. But flavour matters passionately too, of course. There are no hard-and-fast rules – this is the Counter Culture – but no-one with a culturally sensitive palate would think of combining Soft Machine with salt’n’vinegar crisps or Last Exit to Brooklyn with cheesy wotsits.
So what should you combine them with? That’s up to you and your counter-cultural conscience, but Self closes the book with his own suggestions for a full year’s worth of “Sinisterly Savory Snacks” to “Reinforce Your Rhizomatically Radical Reading”. His hierarchy of hot’n’spicy heresy includes Les Chants de Maldoror (Chilli Heatwave Doritos), Cities of the Red Plain (Pickled Onion Discos), The Ticket That Exploded (Beef Hula Hoops), American Psycho (Barbecue Pringles), Junkie (Morrison’s Salt-and-Vingear Twists), 120 Days of Sodom (Scampi-and-Lemon Nik Naks) and The Satanic Verses (Paprika Walker’s Max).
I feel like releasing a satisfied (and strongly flavoured) belch just reading that list. But there’s one ringer amid the relentlessly radical recommendations – if you can spot it, you should definitely read this book. If you can’t, you should even-more-definitely read this book. Munch matters. As Self says in his incendiary introduction: “Commit to Counter Culture – Commit to Crunch.”
Posted in Decadence, Horror, Literature, Transgression | Tagged 120 Days of Sodom, American Psycho, barbecue Pringles, beef hula hoops, belch, belches, belching, cheesy wotsits, chilli heatwave doritos, Cities of the Red Plain, Commit to Crunch, commitment to crunch, ferally phantasmagoric, George Orwell, Junkie, Last Exit to Brooklyn, Les Chants de Maldoror, Maverick Munch, Morrison’s salt'n'vingear twists, normthinkers unbellyfeel crispcrunch, paprika Walker’s max, pickled onion discos, relentlessly radical, rhizomatically radical reading, salt'n'vinegar crisps, savory snacks, scampi-and-lemon nik naks, Soft Machine, The Satanic Verses, The Ticket That Exploded, TransVisceral Books, wickedness and decadence, Will Self | Leave a Comment »
• Reds in the Head – The War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells (1898)
• Canine the Barbarian – The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and Other Stories, Jack London (Penguin American Library 1981)
• Star-Stuff – The Universe in 100 Key Discoveries, Giles Sparrow (Quercus 2012)
• An Island of Her Own – The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps, Edward Brooke-Hitching (Simon & Schuster 2016)
Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR
You don’t read some books: you live them. Treasure Island (1883) is like that; so is The War of the Worlds. Both books appeared before true cinema, but they have the vividness of films and more besides, because cinema can’t evoke scent, smell, taste and sensation as language can. Words create worlds in your head and the best writers, like Wells and Stevenson, can make the real world grow dim while you read. I first read both books as a child and both have stayed with me, so that every time I re-read them I can remember how it felt to read them that first time.
Or rather: I can remember how it felt to live them. I had heard the rustling feathers of Long John Silver’s parrot in Treasure Island; I had tasted the bitterness of the red Martian weed that smothers large parts of London in War of the Worlds. Both books are written in the first person and they’re both full of twists and surprises. That first person – the constant “I, Me, Mine”, as George Harrison put – helps explain why they’re so vivid, but it took much more than that. Stevenson and Wells were literary geniuses, masters of creating worlds from pure imagination.
After all, Stevenson had never lived in the eighteenth century and gone sailing on a treasure-hunt. Wells had never experienced an invasion by Martians. But you will if you read War of the Worlds. Wells captures the way it might have been with great skill and subtlety, from the mysterious lights and flashes seen by astronomers on Mars to the landing of the first cylinder containing Martians. Every time I re-read I know exactly what’s coming, but the narrator never does and I experience the story through him, so that it never fails to seem fresh and exciting.
Or horrifying. The Martians are like red octopuses, but they seem harmless and even pitiful at first, struggling to cope with the stronger gravity of Earth. Then suddenly they turn into death-dealing monsters, with a military technology far in advance of Victorian England’s and the will to use it without mercy. Or does “mercy” apply to creatures from another world? That’s one of the questions faced by the narrator when he sees the Martians at work, whether they’re slaughtering humans with their heat-rays and poison gas or capturing humans for food. The Martians aren’t men and our standards don’t apply. We matter to us, but why should we matter to them?
Because I’m living through the narrator, the ending of the story still seems surprising. Man was helpless, but Mother Nature wasn’t, as the narrator suddenly learns. Wells is good at shifts of perspective that make you see human beings and the world in a new way. Arthur C. Clarke learned that from him, but Wells was a greater and more grown-up writer. Today we know that Mars isn’t likely to invade, but The War of the Worlds remains an excellent adventure story and a continued warning about the “infinite complacency” with which men go “to and fro over this globe with their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter” (“The Coming of the Martians”).
Posted in Literature, Science fiction | Tagged Arthur C. Clarke, English literature, H.G. Wells, language, London, Martians, nineteenth-century literature, novel, red Martian weed, science fiction, SF, space-travel, Victorian England, Victorian literature, War of the Worlds | Leave a Comment »
The Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906) were two of the most powerful books I ever read as a child. I had strong memories of the suffering of the sled-dogs and the cruelty and callousness of the men in the former, of the ruthlessness and viciousness of the dogs in the latter. And I had strong memories of the savage cold and snow of Canada in both.
Re-reading them as an adult, I’ve discovered that Jack London is like J.R.R. Tolkien: his literary talent didn’t match his literary ambition. Mark Twain said that Wagner’s music is better than it sounds. You could say that London’s and Tolkien’s books are better than they read. Their ideas are interesting, their themes massive, but their prose lets them down. Otherwise they might have been among the greatest writers, rather than just among the greatest story-tellers.
The Call of the Wild and White Fang are certainly good stories. They’re complementary, the first telling the story of a tame dog that has to learn to be savage, the other the story of a savage dog that has to learn to be tame. In the first, Buck is a powerful, thick-pelted family pet living “in a big house in the sun-kissed Santa Clara valley”. He doesn’t know that his power and his pelt have suddenly become very valuable:
Buck did not read the newspapers, or he would have known that trouble was brewing, not alone for himself, but for every tide-water dog, strong of muscle and with warm, long hair, from Puget Sound to San Diego. Because men, groping in the Arctic darkness, had found a yellow metal, and because steamship and transportation companies were booming the find, thousands of men were rushing into the Northland. These men wanted dogs, and the dogs they wanted were heavy dogs, with strong muscles by which to toil, and furry coats to protect them from the frost. (The Call of the Wild)
And so Buck is dog-napped, treated cruelly for the first time in his life, and transported to the far north, where he learns “The Law of Club and Fang” as he works pulling a sled. White Fang, the hero of the second book, knows the Law of the Fang from the beginning, because he’s born in the wild, part dog, but mostly wolf:
The aim of life was meat. Life itself was meat. Life lived on life. There were the eaters and the eaten. The law was: EAT OR BE EATEN. (ch. V, “The Law Of Meat”)
Later, when he’s captured by Indians, he learns the Law of the Club. He also learns about cruelty, sadism and hate. Finally, he learns about love, when he acquires a good master and is tamed by kindness.
But he always knew about another kind of love: the kind explored in the short story “Love of Life” (1906), which is also included here. It’s about an injured gold-miner abandoned in the Canadian wilderness who drives himself through “frightful days of snow and rain” to the coast in search of rescue. He nearly starves, he’s nearly killed by a wolf, and his feet become “shapeless lumps of raw meat”, but he’s sustained by “Love of Life”.
The dog Bâtard, in the story of the same name (1904), is sustained by hate and his desire for revenge over his cruel master. Dogs aren’t really dogs in Jack London’s stories: they’re furry humans on four legs, vehicles for London’s Nietzschean ideas about combat, cunning and will. Richard Adams is much more successful at putting himself into the lives of animals, or keeping himself out, but I’m pretty sure that London’s stories were an inspiration for Watership Down (1972).
I’m even surer that they were an inspiration for Conan the Barbarian. I was reminded of Conan a lot as I read and Robert E. Howard was fascinated by the same things: violence, fighting, cruelty, the struggle for survival, and the relation between civilization and savagery. White Fang might have howled in agreement at this, from the Conan story “Beyond the Black River” (1935):
The woodsman sighed and stared at his calloused hand, worn from contact with ax-haft and sword-hilt. Conan reached his long arm for the wine-jug. The forester stared at him, comparing him with the men about them, the men who had died along the lost river, comparing him with those other wild men over that river. Conan did not seem aware of his gaze.
“Barbarism is the natural state of mankind,” the borderer said, still staring somberly at the Cimmerian. “Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.”
Howard was a better writer than London, but I’m not sure that he was as complex and interesting a thinker. He certainly didn’t live as interesting a life. Part of the power of London’s writing comes from the knowledge that he had experienced what he wrote about: life-and-death struggles between man and the elements, between man and man, between man and beast. He was influenced by Nietzsche and may have influenced fascism in his turn. He certainly had racial and social ideas that horrify many people today.
Those ideas aren’t prominent in The Call of the Wild and White Fang, which helps explain why these are now by far his most famous books. That they are animal stories helps even more: they appeal to children and children don’t notice the clumsiness of his prose. But he was a prolific writer, despite dying in 1916 at only the age of forty, and I want to try more of his work.
Posted in Adventure, Children's Literature, Literature | Tagged "Bâtard", "Love of Life", American literature, barbarism, Canada, Canadian wilderness, civilization and savagery, cold and snow, Conan the Barbarian, cruelty, dog-napping, dogs, EAT OR BE EATEN, fighting, gold-mining, J.R.R Tolkien, Jack London, Nietzsche, Nietzschean, Penguin American Library, Penguin Books, Robert E. Howard, short stories, sled-dogs, struggle for survival, The Call of the Wild, The Law of Club and Fang, trapping, twentieth-century literature, violence, Watership Down, White Fang, wolf, wolves | Leave a Comment »